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Shame-O-Phobia - Page 4

Before you begin, bear in mind the type of overarching, nonshaming message that helps to create a therapeutic alliance with male clients: "You're a good man, and you've been making some mistakes," or "You sometimes act badly," or "You can do better," or "Your kids need you to be an even better model for them. We can work together on this."

How do you explain the goals of therapy in "guy talk"? When I work with men who withdraw or become reactive and belligerent whenever a conflict looms with a spouse or partner, I naturally want to help them react with more maturity and insight. I frame this goal in terms of masculine independence, self-control, and personal agency: "We want you to be really powerful. Not over others, but over yourself." "We want to make sure that the everyday crap that comes up for all of us doesn't control you or provoke you into reactions that aren't good for you or the others around you." "We want you to be in charge, not the stuff outside of you."

It's axiomatic that most men have trouble not only talking about feelings, but openly expressing those feelings, so the next step is to normalize their feeling of discomfort with this feature of therapy. Clinicians Matt Englar-Carlson and David Shepard, professors at California State University, Fullerton, have developed excellent strategies to disarm male discomfort and resistance. For example, how do you help a man who emotionally freezes when his wife reveals that her previous boyfriend once raped her? If he can't describe his feelings at hearing this news, the therapist can acknowledge the client's anxiety: "It's got to be difficult to talk about feelings in front of a woman who's more comfortable sharing her feelings and a therapist who does this all the time!" If the therapist is male, he can normalize by identifying: "We weren't trained for talking personally about things, were we?" If it looks like the client is failing at the task of offering his partner the emotional connection she's seeking (when all it would take would be to say "I feel so horrible, but I'm so glad you told me this"), the therapist can reframe for positive intentions: "I know you want to feel connected to your wife, but it's just hard to find the right words."

The idea is to send out the good-men-behaving-badly message. In this way, the man—and, maybe more important, his partner—hears that the problem isn't that he's a bastard with a cold heart and no soul. His heart is warm and in the right place, but he doesn't know how to put thoughts and feelings into words and actions.

Therapeutic self-disclosure can be another effective way to reduce avoidance and defensiveness by nipping shame in the bud. You can create an atmosphere of trust and intimacy by offering a carefully calibrated glimpse into your own life—acknowledging that you've experienced some of the same struggles and conflicts. I often tell men stories about times I've yelled at my kids, said nasty things, and stupidly overreacted to them. I tell men about the many times I've stubbornly insisted that my wife and I do something my way without really thinking through how this would affect her. I tell them about times when I've been in therapy and how I've fought with therapists who were telling me things that I took as narcissistic injuries. By showing that even though I'm a therapist I've also had problems, I reassure them that self-revealing will not lose them my esteem or confirm their worst fears of what will happen if they let down their guard. This is destigmatizing.

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